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Friday, June 10, 2011

Stencils are not the Devil Incarnate: dogma and the EYLF

I used to be married to a man who couldn't spell. (What does that have to do with stencils and the EYLF? Plenty. Listen to me.)

It wasn't his fault.  And it wasn't because he was stupid.  In fact, he was a very intelligent man- a specialist physician- but he had fallen victim to educational fashion. 

So how did this happen? Surely there was a problem in his education!

When he was at school in South Australia, sight-words were the buzz for teaching reading and spelling. That's all very well if you're a visual learner, but he wasn't.  As a result, he never could get his head around words like 'view' and 'grief' and was constantly asking me to proof-read for him.

Meanwhile, I'd been brought up in NSW, where we were considered 'behind the times' because we were still learning reading and spelling through phonetics, rules and repetition.  I did try to teach my husband that it's 'i before e, except after c', but if you don't learn those rules in childhood they just don't stick.  My spelling has always been pretty foolproof- and hello, I don't feel emotionally crippled by having had to recite a list of spelling words every morning when I was 7 or 8.

I'm not saying sight-words weren't a useful tool- of course they were. Just not very helpful for some children, and not the only answer to the riddle of teaching reading and spelling.

(You're still waiting for me to talk about stencils, aren't you? Patience!)

I'm old enough to have seen quite a few educational fashions touted as breakthroughs.  I've seen new methods adopted as dogma, and old methods discarded scornfully- in fact, that's usually what happens.

And as an employer, I've also seen the results of some misguided or over-used educational reforms.  The phase where creativity was worshipped (and teachers who wanted to correct grammar and spelling were ridiculed) has given us a whole generation littered with young people who, for example, can't take a phone order, because they can't write common words like 'chicken' down in a way that anyone else can understand- and that's a massive disadvantage in many work environments.

So here we are, on the verge of a curriculum revolution with the Early Years Learning Foundation for early childhood, and already I see the new end of the see saw flying to extremes while old practices hit the dust in a cloud of invective.  Rubbish! Bad practice! Lazy! Outdated! All sorts of judgmental words are flying around already as teaching tools are tossed aside.  And I plead for some common sense.

(Are you seeing where the stencils come in yet?)

Open-ended play is a great example of a sound concept that's being preached to the point of dogma.  Yes, of course we should give children the freedom to play with materials in an unstructured way, without an end goal in mind; that's what creativity's about, and it's also been shown to enhance future learning.  But some educators are interpreting the need for open-ended play in such a way that they are giving no goals at all- and yes, hello, children do enjoy goals from time to time!- or discarding perfectly good educational tools which can be used in all sorts of fun and creative ways in the hands of a good practitioner.

The use of stencils (hurrah!) is a good example.  (That's 'stencils' as in 'multiple-copy activity sheets', in case you still haven't twigged.)  In some circles, there's such a huge over-reaction to the OVER-use of stencils by some bad practitioners that they've thrown the baby out with the bath water.  Some teachers have used stencils as a short cut- yes, most little kids enjoy colouring in, which is a very closed-ended activity which promotes fine motor control and not much else- and in some centres I've seen the  stencils and pencils come out every afternoon when staff were tired and couldn't be bothered thinking.

But to discard all stencils as though they are the problem?  That's blaming the object for the way the object was being used, and that's silly.


<gets off soap box>

I often supply the kids with multiple copies of a line drawing of something they're interested in- fairies, dragons, fish, spiders, whatever- then give them a heap of materials and see what happens.  Paint and fine brushes, glue and collage materials, scissors, counting items, pipe cleaners, boxes and tape... the list goes on.  Suddenly that stencil is an open-ended activity.  We've ended up with fantasy collages where you couldn't even see the picture any more- it was a starting point, that's all.  We've ended up with models made from boxes, inspired by the shape in the picture.  We've ended up with painted cut-outs made into a mural. We've had kids make up their own game using the counters.  I've even seen a child teach herself to reproduce a picture to scale, by discovering that she could see the lines through another piece of paper and trace them. She was SO excited!  I've seen children add to the picture themselves- backgrounds, other characters, extra arms and legs, whatever.  Stencils can be just a stimulus, if you let them.

And stencils can give confidence to children who don't think of themselves as particularly creative.  Knowing that I had several children in the room who didn't much like art activities, I decided to give them a head start in a 'belonging' activity where I'd suggested they might paint the face of their best friend.  All I gave them was a stencil of an oval.  Nearly every child in the room felt good enough about this to make an attempt; I didn't have a single child say 'I can't'.  Some painted a friend in the room, some a friend they remembered from home, some painted a parent.  It was a scaffold- a leg-up to help them feel competent. They had a ball.

And what about those write-over-the-dots stencils? Surely they're the very incarnation of educational evil? You'd think so, the way some educators talk.

But I just think of 'Letitia', a 4-year-old girl who had a sudden onset of outrageous behaviour.  Letitia was a wonderful artist, but she wouldn't even sit down on this particular day.  I have no idea what had happened in her home life, but she'd suddenly lost all confidence in her ability to draw- 'I CAN'T!'- and was racing around the room throwing toys, screaming at the top of her voice and shrieking if anyone came near her.

Eventually, by getting down on her level, enduring the punches and talking quietly to her, I managed to extract the information that she wanted to draw a star. 'You do it!' she cried, over and over, as I tried to get her to at least try herself.

So I compromised.  I drew her a star, and then next to it, I dotted another star shape. Suddenly Letitia was completely focussed.  She took the pencil from me, and ever so carefully traced the shape over the dots.  It took her some time, and by the time she'd finished she was almost back in control.  I drew a few more dotted shapes, and wished to heaven that I had some of those 'wicked' dotted stencils on hand. She was peaceful for the rest of the afternoon.

What was happening here? Stencils don't have to be just a pathetic attempt at a creative art or fine motor activity.  For Letitia, that stencil was a way of regaining control.  Those dots were the scaffold for her to find her way back to feeling some power in her world.

I've seen the same thing happen in a room where a child with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) was running amok; the three most fearful children in the class high-tailed it to the writing area and started drawing over the dots of their name stencils.  Colouring without crossing the lines can provide the same sense of security for vulnerable children.

So think of this, carers, as you implement the EYLF.  And don't throw your tools out with the toolbox. And please, please, DON'T jump down other educators' throats when they mention that they used a stencil in their room!


  1. Excellent post. I agree wholeheartedly. From all my years of experience I can relate to your post so much. I have found that children's responses can be many and varied and like you said for some children, templates do have a settling effect.

    1. Thanks Deb- I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks like this.


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